Former Trader Joe’s president turns would-be food waste into affordable groceries for Dorchester neighbourhood
On one side of Washington Street a KFC advertises “$5 Fill Up” meals, an offer underscored by the unmistakable scent of the Colonel’s secret recipe wafting through the air. On the other side of the street is a non-profit grocery store that competes with such temptations by proposing nutritious alternatives at fast food price points.
Founded by a former president of Trader Joe’s, Daily Table launched last June by opening a first location in Dorchester – a diverse, working-class Boston neighbourhood – with a mission to provide healthy groceries and ready-to-eat meals at affordable prices.
After 31 years in the grocery business – including 14 as president of Trader Joe’s – Daily Table founder Doug Rauch was no stranger to healthy food at a cheaper price, but this time he went about it in a completely different way. After studying the issue for two years at Harvard, Doug Rauch discovered it was possible to sell relatively healthy groceries at low prices, says Fredi Shonkoff, the initiative’s senior director.
“(Rauch) went to an executive leadership program at Harvard for a couple of years and their mission was to come up with a social issue and solve it. He was really troubled by the fact that we waste so much food in the country,” Shonkoff says in an interview with Billy. “Forty per cent of what we produce, we do not eat, and one in every six Americans is considered ‘food insecure’. So he thought, ‘Why not use one issue to solve another?’ ”
We’re not a one-stop shop grocery store. We call it a treasure hunt
Through donations and by buying up surpluses from growers, distributors and manufacturers, Daily Table is able to sell for less – a lot less. Sandwiches made in-house sell for $1.99, a dozen eggs go for $1.99, smoothies $1.69, a tub of hummus 99 cents, and apples 69 cents a pound.
“We spent two years talking to experts and people in the know and came up with this very unique, not-for-profit model to address the issue of hunger and food insecurity,” Shonkoff says.
Daily Table’s model forces customers to improvise. At last count the store had just 150 items on the shelves (that compares with 50,000 in a typical supermarket or 4,000 in a Trader Joe’s). “We’re not a one-stop shop grocery store. We call it a treasure hunt, you never know what you’re going to find,” Shonkoff says. “We have a commitment to always have milk, eggs, a fruit, and a green vegetable – and if we don’t get those donated, we’ll go buy them.
“You have to come with an open mind. You can always find something to cook for dinner or find something prepared for dinner, but you can’t necessarily come in with a shopping list and get what you want. We tell people to come to us first and then you can go to the regular supermarket to fill in the rest.”
Shonkoff and her team must improvise as well. “(The supply of products) comes less from supermarkets than we had thought. But we’ll get food from a guy on a fish pier because he caught too many fish. Only so many wholesalers will want to buy it that day. It’s the same thing with manufactures. They produce a lot and demand goes up and down. We are the beneficiaries of that.”
Shonkoff, who spent 20 years with Blue Cross as an executive in corporate relations, is quick to point out that nothing for sale is past its “Sell By” date (the Boston Globe had reported that some in the community had worried that the project would try to feed Dorchester on produce that other neighbourhoods wouldn’t eat).
Dorchester is not a so-called food desert. For a large American city, Boston has been able to maintain a healthy distribution of grocery stores – but Daily Table nevertheless identified the neighbourhood as a suitable pilot location based on the challenges local residents face when it comes to affording healthy meals. “There is a significant number of food insecure people in this community so we knew we would be helping the population that we want to help,” Shonkoff says.
Food insecurity in 21st-century North America often isn’t about the quantity of food available, it’s the quality. “The face of hunger is different today than it used to be,” says Shonkoff. “We have people that are hungry for nutrients, not calories, so there is a lot of obesity and hunger at the same time. We are trying to address better health through better diet. Doug says that we are a health initiative disguised as a grocery store. We only have three drinks: water, milk and smoothies. We don’t have any juice because of the sugar content – and we don’t have any soda, and we’re never going to.”
However, she continues, “We’re not a health food store. We try to present our food in ways that is culturally appealing and satisfy the taste of the community. Part of the reason Doug did it this way is to create a normal, dignified shopping experience for the customer. So instead of food banks and food distribution centres, which are really critical and are making a huge difference in people’s lives, this is yet another way to address the issue of hunger alleviation.
“It’s very important for us that the store be for everyone and not feel like a poor person’s store. It’s bright and clean and it provides a dignified shopping experience for the customer.”
A local food bank agrees. “When they started out they reached out to us about the hunger community and how to approach things, so we actually acted as consultants in that,” says Catherine Drennan, a spokeswoman for the Boston Food Bank. “I think it’s a great idea. Obviously that area is an area in need of more affordable grocery stores. Sometimes that’s half the battle in low-income neighbourhood … It’s going to take a lot of creative ideas to solve the hunger problem. We’re all for it.”
Daily Table is already actively seeking a second location in Boston, and the organization is getting requests asking it to open locations in other states.
“You don’t want to judge a project like this from one community alone,” Shonkoff says. “You never know the quirks of a community. We have a unique location here, we really want to test it in another location before we call it a success.”